Design vs. Emergence in a Theory of Federalism: Toward Institutional Reconciliation

27 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2015

See all articles by Richard E. Wagner

Richard E. Wagner

George Mason University - Department of Economics; George Mason University - Mercatus Center

Date Written: March 5, 2015


It is common to think of federalism as a governmental arrangement that entails competition among governments. Thinking this way, however, is problematic. A competitive system is generally associated with the notion of polycentricity, as illustrated by a market system of free and open competition. The structure of such a system emerges through a competitive process and changes continually as that process operates. By contrast, a federalist system of governments is typically designed as against being emergent, and with that design involving some assignment of powers, duties, and competencies among the member governments. A genuinely competitive federalism must thus be designed in such a fashion as to mirror the workings of a spontaneously generated order. While it is comparatively easy to think of competition among a horizontal array of governments, it is more difficult to do that when those governments are nested within a vertical array of governments. Furthermore, the problem of the anti-commons comes into play in dealing with federal systems because the inalienability of property rights within governmental entities works to stifle the continual adaptation in governmental structure that a genuine system of competitive federalism requires.

Keywords: competitive federalism; collusive federalism; design vs. emergence; simple vs. compound republics; polycentricity; anti-commons

JEL Classification: D23, D47, D72, H30, H77

Suggested Citation

Wagner, Richard E., Design vs. Emergence in a Theory of Federalism: Toward Institutional Reconciliation (March 5, 2015). GMU Working Paper in Economics No. 15-24, Available at SSRN: or

Richard E. Wagner (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Department of Economics ( email )

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George Mason University - Mercatus Center ( email )

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